The premise behind Prison Architect is already unsettling: run the best, most efficient prison possible. Success doesn’t require moral good, just success. It’s unsurprising, then, that some Prison Architect modders would take this ethically ambiguous setup for a game and allow players to participate in scenarios with more nefarious ambitions.
“Gulag” mod does what it promises, altering Prison Architect’s text, graphics, and features to make it more thematically in-line with running a Soviet Union-era forced labor camp from the World War II era. Real-life Soviet gulags were used to house, exploit, and suppress political dissidents, round up petty criminals, and eventually became a substantial engine of the Soviet economy. They were fucked up.
Modder ApolloLV published the first version of their mod in 2014, when the game was still in alpha. Slowly, ApolloLV—who doesn't even play many games, let alone create mods—has tweaked various aspects. The most recent update, from last November, changed the assault rifles carried by guards to look more like period-appropriate AK-47s. The update before added Russian language protest signs.
Prison Architect is a goofy looking game, and its cartoonish art directly contributes to an abstraction of player actions—it becomes easy to focus on the numbers, instead of people. Turning the place into a gulag takes it one step further.
To learn why someone would spend years on such a mod, I spoke with ApolloLV, a computer science student in Germany, who recently finished their bachelor’s degree.
Waypoint: Was there a specific moment this idea came into your head?
ApolloLV: Actually, the first time I thought about it was when I was reading through the Prison Architect [PA] forums. There was some discussion about what themes would be appropriate, like having a concentration camp mod and stuff like that. At that point, I thought: “Well, a concentration camp would take matters too far, since its only purpose is killing people.” But the game already had some prison labor system built in back then, so I thought: “Why not make a mod that focuses on this aspect of a prison?” After all, there have been many labor camps in many countries throughout the recent history, and so I arrived at the infamous gulag system of the USSR.
Waypoint: How much research was involved in trying to make the mod historically accurate?
ApolloLV: I have read some articles about the subject and started reading The Gulag Archipelago as well as Kolyma - The Arctic Death Camps. This was primarily because I always wanted to tell a story, to convey more of that ruthlessness that is lost when doing graphical work. I never got to make that story due to time constraints, but I'm still hoping to get to that someday.
For the graphics, I also did a lot of web research, e.g. to get the right look for the guards and their rifles. Surprisingly, there is not much information about it out there in the English-speaking web. (For practical reasons, there aren't many photographs at all.) For the names of the prisoners, I simply chose some from the Wikipedia page about common Russian surnames.
Waypoint: Forced labor camps are no joke—they were brutal, awful constructs that often resulted in death. How much of your mod tries to convey that brutality?
ApolloLV: Barely. As it turns out, a mod for PA is very limited in the ways it can change existing game systems. It is easily possible to create new objects and script their behavior, but I found even small changes to the existing functionality very difficult. For example, there were requests to make the workshop introduction—a seminar that prisoners have to visit before they are allowed to work in the prison workshop—optional for the prisoners, so they could be put to work in the workshop immediately upon arrival. I tried to do this, but it is one of many game mechanics a mod simply cannot alter. This makes it almost impossible to capture the more serious aspects of the life inside a labor camp.
Waypoint: Prison Architect has cute, cartoonish graphics, which seem to go against the idea of a gulag. How much were you thinking about that clash?
ApolloLV: I think that clash has intentionally been there for the entire game. Right in the tutorial, you are forced to witness the execution of a prisoner on death row. PA confronts the player with the reality of the prison system, while still urging [them] to become a part of the game, to build the electric chair for the execution. This forced passivity in the face of injustice and cruelty is what I would actually see as one of the big strengths of PA.
I think it works in a very similar way with my mod, where you are receiving dozens of prisoners for egregious offenses, and still have to accommodate them and put them to work. I have always aimed at a very brownish color palette, so that the atmosphere of the game is more depressed, more somber than the base game.
Waypoint: You've been tinkering since 2014. What’s kept you coming back?
ApolloLV: I don't spend much time on the mod, so it has been an incremental process at realizing more and more changes. I started with modifying the uniforms, then moved on to recoloring some objects. After some time, I figured out how to draw wooden furniture in PA’s artstyle, so I replaced many objects to get rid of all that shiny metal that one would see in a prison in the US nowadays but that looks out of place in the middle of Russia in the 50s.
After I read The Gulag Archipelago, I noticed that the offenses people are sent to the gulag for are very different from the one in the game, so I introduced some convictions on the base of the infamous article 58. I changed more aspects of the game, but I think those are the most important ones.
(Above: An interview with an 89-year-old survivor of a Soviet Union gulag.)
Waypoint: The changes you’ve made alter the aesthetic and tone of playing the game. Does that mean you want them to come away with a different feeling, too?
ApolloLV: I think the one I try to aim for is uneasiness. Many people were never confronted with this before, so I think the confrontation alone is a valuable experience. However, I think this does not really work for most players. After all, changing some graphics and names can never capture the true horror of being stuck in such a place for your entire, short remaining life.
Waypoint: Have you noticed anything unexpected about the way people use the mod?
ApolloLV: I don't get much information about that. Most of my feedback is from the comments on the Steam page. However, these appear to be mostly humorous, for example, praising the mod in the name of Stalin. I think some are actually serious, and for those ones that are honestly believing that the gulag system was a positive or necessary part of the "glorious Soviet Union," I feel sorry. I guess that many others simply enjoy the grim atmosphere created by the graphics changes.
"I try to aim for is uneasiness. However, I think this does not really work for most players. After all, changing some graphics and names can never capture the true horror of being stuck in such a place for your entire, short remaining life."
Waypoint: What's interesting about PA is how, in some ways, it can inadvertently reflect your own thoughts on what prison "should be." What have you learned while playing the game?
ApolloLV: It did not take long until I only considered a prisoner as one small number, one small part inside the prison system. And this is not the fault of the game, since it provides each prisoner with unique behavior, skills, and personal background. It is simply something that occurs when you focus on management for a long time—and it frightens me.
Because if I start reducing those individuals to a small statistical influence myself after a few hours inside a game, how inhumane will a bureaucratic prison system become in real life? And I am not talking about any labor camps or the fucked up system created by private prison contractors in the US. I am talking about the prisons in "liberal" western countries like Germany or Sweden. If even in these countries a prison system will inevitably become what I experience in the game—and there are indicators that that is the case—then I think we should seriously consider alternative approaches to delivering penalties.
However, PA also teaches you that a prison will function well if you keep your prisoners happy and consider their needs. This brings me some hope, because strong incentives exist to at least keep most prisoners content with their living conditions.
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